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Railway roulette is pushing travellers from trains onto planes

Railway roulette is pushing travellers from trains onto planes

How long, asks a traveller from York, should I allow to reach Manchester airport by rail for a 4.30pm flight? My view: plan to travel on a fast, direct TransPennine Express train, leaving at 12.20pm and arriving at 2.09pm. But since there is a significant risk that this service, like many each day, will be cancelled by the train operator, check on the day and be prepared to get to York station early for an 11.37am departure via Sheffield and Manchester Piccadilly that gets in at 2pm; it uses three different train operators but none of them is TransPennine Express.

The questioner, though, was aghast at my answer: “I was planning to arrive there four hours ahead at least. They have terrible queues for security.”

Last spring, it was certainly the case that Manchester airport – and others – had some very long waits going through the checks to airside. However, even in the early morning – when some passengers on flights at 11am have added to the problem by getting there four hours early – allowing an hour should be ample. But the reaction shows how strong opinions about the likelihood of travel disruption can be quickly formed – and then stay there.

I mention that because another reader asks: “How likely do you think it is that there will be more rail strikes over Easter? We want to go from London to Edinburgh on 7 April and return on 11 April. It’s about the same price Lumo as flying from Stansted with easyJet. I would prefer to get the train. But if we book and then need to cancel if strikes are announced, it will probably be too late to get a cheap easyJet flight instead.”

I read the question with an increasingly heavy heart, because the dilemma shines a light on the currently miserable state of the railways. Travellers want to do the right thing: opting for a low-impact, low-stress journey on the excellent low-cost train operator, Lumo. The firm shuttles between the English and Scottish capitals five times a day and charges, in my experience, very reasonable fares.

Yet on 16 March, the service will be curtailed by the next strike by members of the RMT union working for Network Rail. Even though Lumo is not involved in a dispute with the RMT, the East Coast main line that its trains run on are controlled by Network Rail signallers. Early and late trains are likely to be cancelled.

It is too early to say whether…

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